Friday, January 3, 2014
Review: EQUILATERAL, by Ken Kalfus
Equilateral is a nearly-perfect novel. Mind you, that doesn't mean it's going to suit every reader. But you'd be hard-pressed to find as carefully-chiseled a gem. I first read about it in Kirkus and immediately set about securing a copy. It took me a while to actually read it- it was the last book I finished in 2013- and I advise you to not waste another moment.
The story concerns an astronomer, Professor Sanford Thayer, and his quest to make first contact with the inhabitants of Mars. He and other scientists are convinced that there is intelligent life on the red planet, and he comes up with the idea of building a perfect triangle in the desert, filling it with petroleum and lighting it on fire like a giant smoke signal at the time when Mars will be closest to the site of the triangle (the Equilateral, as it's called), located in Egypt. The book is set in the late 19th century and peopled with characters who each have his or her own distinctly personal motivations- love, profit, etc.- for working on the project. But none has Thayer's unyielding passion, and none will go as far as he does to pursue it.
The recent laudatory review in the Daily Beast gives a great overview of the novel's historical basis. I really enjoyed how Thayer and the other characters were people of their time, not modern-thinking people transported to the past, but real stuffy Victorians with all the baggage that entails. Social commentary plays a large part in the narrative and the events that transpire therein; all does not go smoothly for Thayer and company. In fact things go very badly indeed. Among the complications are Thayer's secretary Miss Keaton who is in love with him; his obsession with the Arab serving girl who ministers him when he becomes ill, and the shenanigans of the project's sponsors, various shady political figures and the huge and restless labor force underpinning the whole project.
I have to say this is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I've read in a while. It's very difficult to classify- part historical fiction, part science fiction, and part puzzle, it's a literary treat for the reader who won't mind a slow-moving, meticulously written and very unusual book. Its dry tone belies the slow pressure of suspense that creeps in and takes over the narrative's momentum little by little. And that ending will knock your socks off.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.